The arrest of the richest man in Russia, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, on charges of embezzlement, fraud and tax evasion, could be a signal of a titanic political struggle over the future course of the country.
Khodorkovsky, who was chairman of Yukos Oil, reputed to be Russia’s richest company, has in the past used his wealth to try to influence Russia’s political course. He has resigned from Yukos and has hinted he might challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps running from jail, in the presidential elections scheduled for March.
This could get interesting.
There is no shortage of theories about why the Putin administration arrested Khodorkovsky. The government, of course, says it’s about demonstrating that the law will be applied equally to all, rich, poor or in-between. Reformers and intellectuals fear it signals the predominance of former KGB people in Putin’s entourage, determined to consolidate power and stifle potential dissent. Others say it is simply one incident in the ebb and flow in power relationships among the siloviki — men of state power — and the “oligarchs,” or men of wealth, over whether big business or the state will dominate Russia.
D.J. Peterson, a political scientist at the Rand Corp. who follows technology and business developments in Russia, suggested it might be as simple as an election ploy. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December and the presidential election is in March.
“Last spring Putin and his allies were lagging in the polls and needed something dramatic to boost their prospects,” Peterson said. “Polls show that about 70 percent of Russians are actively critical of the very wealthy, so going against them can be seen as a populist move, a vindication of law and order.”
It is important to note that few Russian big businessmen are up-from-the-bootstraps entrepreneurs. When state enterprises were “privatized” in the early and mid-1990s, most went to those with political connections or those with the resources to buy small shareholders out at pennies on the dollar. Some Russian businesses have prospered by serving consumers, but many have grown large on the basis of connections.
Khardokovsky’s arrest has created political tremors in Russia. Most ordinary Russians seem indifferent, while many reformers and human rights activists, including Yelena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov’s widow, view the arrest as lawless and troubling. Putin’s chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, have resigned in protest. The stock market plunged until President Putin reassured investors he wasn’t abandoning market-oriented economic policies.
It was probably premature for the U.S. State Department to express alarm, as it did. Russia is important, of course, and a return of outright tyranny would be troubling. But governance under democracy (or pseudodemocracy) is often messy. It is just as well to let the Russians handle their own mess.